IoT Drives Boom in Demand for Sensors in Embedded Systems

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Sensing their surroundings is a key function of billions of embedded systems operating in the Internet of things (IoT). Because of this, MCU suppliers are offering support for sensor technology in their IoT solutions, including sophisticated sensor fusion capabilities.

Industry research company Gartner Inc. defines the IoT as a network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment. Indeed, sensors represent the core mission in a vast number of IoT embedded systems. For example, the fast expanding segment of sensor networks is opening up vast new growth opportunities, with hundreds or thousands of devices linked together to perform large-scale sensing tasks, such as air pollution monitoring and water quality detection.

In an example of the growth in just one segment of the market, worldwide market revenue for MEMS used in industrial IoT equipment will rise to $120 million in 2018, up from $16 million in 2013, according to a forecast from the market research firm IHS Technology. Global market shipments for industrial IoT equipment are expected to expand to 7.3 billion units in 2025, up from 1.8 billion in 2013.

The industrial IoT market comprises a diverse range of equipment, including nodes, controllers and infrastructure, used in markets ranging from building automation to commercial transport, smart cards, industrial automation, lighting and healthcare. Such gear employs a range of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensor types including accelerometers, pressure sensors, timing components and microphones.

Some sensor-oriented embedded systems are increasing in their sophistication, integrating inputs from multiple devices. For example, an IoT node devoted to motion detection may incorporate three types of MEMS sensors: accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers. A node that performs environmental detection can employ light level, color, temperature, pressure and humidity sensors.

Individually, each sensor type suffers limitations in areas including accuracy and responsiveness. To obtain the best results from all these devices, embedded systems in the IoT must fuse together all the sensor signals. Such sensor fusion requires both software and processing to combine the outputs from the sensors and aggregate and analyze it on a processor. Putting all the pieces together for sensor fusion can present a significant technical challenge for embedded systems developers.

Suppliers of MCUs for IoT applications can mitigate the issue by collaborating with partners to develop solutions combining microcontrollers, sensors, software and design tools for sensor fusion.

For example, MCU maker Atmel Corp. is offering its Sensor Hub Solution. The solution consists of Atmel’s line of ARM-Cortex MCUs along with sensors and fusion software from a number of suppliers. Partners in the Sensor Hub Solution include major sensor suppliers like Asahi Kasei Microdevices Corp., Bosch and Kionix Inc.

As sensor solutions in IoT embedded systems become increasingly complex, MCU makers will play an increasingly important role in helping designers attain sensor fusion.

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